New York's 1st Arabic-Themed School Hires New Principal

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A new principal was hired to head the city's first Arabic-themed public school, the education department announced Tuesday, five months after the academy's founding principal said she was forced to resign.

Holly Reichert was to begin leading the Khalil Gibran International Academy in Brooklyn on Wednesday. The school, which opened last September with about 60 students and emphasizes Arabic and Arab culture, is named for the Lebanese Christian poet and peace advocate.

Reichert, 42, replaces interim principal Danielle Salzberg. Salzberg, who is Jewish and doesn't speak Arabic, replaced Debbie Almontaser, who stepped down in August after she gave an interview in which she discussed the word "intifada," an Arabic term commonly used to refer to the Palestinian uprising against Israel.

Almontaser, a longtime New York educator and a Muslim of Yemeni descent, was criticized for not explicitly condemning the use of "intifada" on T-shirts made by a youth organization. She said education officials forced her to leave her job amid the ensuing furor, and she reapplied for it in October.

Education officials denied they forced out Almontaser and refused to consider rehiring her. They said that she had resigned to ensure the school's stability and that schools Chancellor Joel Klein agreed with her decision.

In early December, a federal judge rejected Almontaser's requests to be reinstated and to stop the city from looking for a new principal.

U.S. District Court Judge Sidney H. Stein said Almontaser's free-speech rights weren't violated because she made the comments to a newspaper reporter as principal of the academy.

The judge noted that the press staff for city schools had told her not to discuss the T-shirts. He said city officials have a responsibility to supervise and monitor messages to the public.

Almontaser said the meaning of her words during the newspaper interview were distorted after she stated that "intifada" stemmed from a root word meaning "shake off." She said she also told the reporter the word has different meanings for different people but certainly implies violence to many, especially in connection with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The New York Civil Liberties Union and others criticized the judge's decision and Almontaser's departure. Almontaser's lawsuit will proceed to a trial.

The controversy never gave Reichert pause about applying for the principal job, she said through Department of Education spokeswoman Melody Meyer. Reichert wasn't available for an interview Tuesday evening, Meyer said.

A panel of teachers, parents and school community partners interviewed candidates, and a community superintendent made the decision to hire Reichert, Meyer said.

Reichert has headed the English department at a school in Bahrain, held teaching fellows in Egypt and Syria, served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Yemen and worked as an adviser and instructor in New York's Teaching Fellows program, according to a resume provided by the education department. Since 2004, she has mentored new city teachers.

She has a "working knowledge" of conversational Arabic spoken in Egypt, Meyer said.

Reichert received a bachelor's degree in Arabic language and social anthropology from the University of London and master's degrees from Teachers College at Columbia University, Baruch College at the City University of New York and the American University in Cairo, Egypt, her resume says.

A native of Palo Alto, Calif., she was raised a Methodist, Meyer said.

During the announcement earlier Tuesday, Reichert said she looked forward to overseeing the Gibran academy's expansion to a dual language program in which half the classes will be taught in Arabic and the other half in English, Meyer said.

The Gibran academy began with sixth-graders and will expand with one additional class every year, reaching 500 to 600 students in grades six to 12.